Indiana took a day to bask in the glow of history. The schedule of the NCAA Tournament provides for that, but not much more.
On Wednesday, the Hoosiers became just the second team in Indiana women’s basketball history to reach the Sweet 16 and the first to do so since 1983 when the field was just 36 teams and IU only had to win one game to get there. It was a milestone not only in the careers of the players on the current roster, but for the Teri Moren era, which is already by far the most successful coaching tenure of any in Indiana history. After being deprived of an NCAA Tournament due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year when they set a school wins record at 24-8, the Hoosiers have already assured that this season will be known as the most successful season in program history regardless of what happens from here.
“It’s an honor,” senior guard Ali Patberg said during a press conference Thursday. “We’ve worked so hard for this. When I got to IU and joined the program, we’d been hard at work for this. To reach that is a great feeling. We had a good time (Wednesday) after the game, enjoying all the work we’d done. But now we’re on to the next game and we’re looking to continue to win.”
Another win, of course, would take the Hoosiers further than they’ve ever been as a program, and it would require them beating a team as good as any they’ve ever beaten.
At 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) in the Alamodome in San Antonio, the No. 4 seed Hoosiers (20-5) play No. 1 seed North Carolina State (22-2) in the Mercado Regional Semifinals. N.C. State has won 10 straight games including the ACC tournament with its last loss coming on Feb. 7. The Wolfpack lost twice in three games in late January and early February to North Carolina and Virginia Tech, but avenged both of those defeats with double-digit wins over those opponents in February. They are one of three ACC teams left in the bracket and they beat the other two — No. 2 seed Louisville and No. 5 seed Georgia Tech — twice each. They have won their games by an average margin of 15.8 points.
There isn’t much the Wolfpack doesn’t do right. They rank second in the ACC and 20th nationally in scoring, averaging 77.5 points per game, They’re second in the conference and 11th nationally in field goal percentage (46.9 percent) and they’re the best 3-point shooting team in the league, ranking 25th nationally at 36.3 percent.
On the defensive end, they’re fourth in the ACC in scoring defense, first in field goal percentage defense and fifth against the 3. They also lead the league in rebounding margin and assist-to-turnover ratio.
The Wolfpack are balanced with four scorers averaging double digit points and three averaging at least six rebounds. But they have an All-American in the middle in 6-foot-5 center Elissa Cunane, who is averaging 16.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game and shooting 84.7 percent at the line and the second-leading assist getter in the league in point guard Raine Perez, who also leads the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“They do a lot of things,” Moren said. “There’s a reason why they’re the No. 1 seed. Transition wise, they’re unbelievably athletic. Obviously, they have an inside presence, balanced scoring, won the ACC, that says it all.”
The Hoosiers have plenty to counter with with a pair of All-Big Ten guards in Patberg and Grace Berger, an All-Big Ten forward in Mackenzie Holmes and a defense that ranks second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (59.3 ppg) and first in field goal percentage defense (37.0 percent). The Hoosiers suffocated Virginia Commonwealth and Belmont in the first two rounds, allowing just 80 points combined in the first two games.
But Moren saw a flaw in those performances that she knows the Wolfpack can exploit. The Hoosiers finished third in the Big Ten in rebounding margin, but they allowed too many second- and third-chance opportunities to their first two opponents. They were fortunate that those squads didn’t make them pay more dearly.
“The biggest key for us is we have to be able to keep them off the offensive glass,” Moren said. “We’ve proven in the last couple of games that we can guard in the half-court quite well. But what we haven’t done a good enough job of is keeping other teams off the glass. Last night, we gave Belmont 11 offensive rebounds. You’re not going to beat N.C. State giving up offensive rebounds.”
The margin for error is small on Saturday, but the reward would be huge. Moving on means a crack at the winner of the Arizona-Texas A&M game for a spot in the Final Four.
“Our goal coming into the season wasn’t to get to the Sweet 16 and stop,” Patberg said. “We have bigger goals and we’ve had those goals.”
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